The History of White People
By Nell Irvin Painter
Harper's, September, 2010

In 1855, Abraham Lincoln, then making his living as an Illinois lawyer, represented William Dungey, a dark-complexioned man who was suing his brother-in-law for slander for referring to Dungey as “Black Bill, a Negro.” Lincoln challenged the veracity of defense depositions that claimed that Dungey was known to be of mixed racial ancestry. Dungey was actually Portuguese, Lincoln told the jury. “My client is not a Negro,” he added, “though it is no crime to be a Negro—no crime to be born with a black skin.” Lincoln won the case, and Dungey received an award of $600. Had he lost, Dungey would have been stripped of the right to vote and been subject to imprisonment, as he was married to a white woman. Illinois law did make it a crime, under certain circumstances, to be “born with a black skin.”

This case is one of hundreds in American history in which a person’s racial identity became a matter of le gal dispute. Among the more revealing are a pair from the 1920s in which the Supreme Court ruled against Asians seeking American citizenship (the federal Naturalization Acts of 1790 and 1870 restricted naturalization to white persons and those of African descent). Takao Ozowa, an immigrant from Japan, claimed to be “whiter than the average Italian, Spaniard, or Portuguese,” but the Court concluded that as a member of the “Mongolian” race he was ineligible for citizenship. Bhagat S. Thind, a Punjabi Sikh who had fought for the United States in World War I, claimed to be a “pure Aryan” and therefore white. The Court declared that if Thind went out into the street, the “common man” would not consider him white. In the aftermath of the Thind case, several dozen previously naturalized Americans had their citizenship revoked.

Such cases demonstrate two essential qualities of race as a historical category. First, as scholars have argued for decades, race is socially constructed rather than a scientifc concept or timeless biological reality. Ideas and practices related to race change over time and differ from one country to another. The United States has traditionally operated according to the “one-drop” rule, whereby ancestry, not simply appearance, determines whether one is white or black. Thus, a white woman can give birth to a black child, while a black woman cannot give birth to a white child, even if the children look exactly the same. If his country adopted the American defnition in reverse, Haitian dictator Francois Duvalier once quipped, 98 percent of his people would be white.

No matter how arbitrary or absurd, racial designations have real consequences. In the United States, being white confers concrete benefts: economic, political, social, and psychological. The past generation has seen a proliferation of academic studies that explore these benefts through the history of whiteness. Originating among labor historians dismayed by Ronald Reagan’s success in wooing white working-class voters, the study of whiteness as a source of personal identity dovetailed with the “cultural turn,” the shift of historians’ attention to discourse and symbolism. The concept of whiteness soon spread into other fields, including law, literature, and cultural studies.

A number of books sought to explain how one or another immigrant group—Irish, Italians, Jews—“became” white as part of the assimilation process. The problem with this thesis was that these groups were white to begin with. No one had tried to prevent Irish immigrants from voting on the grounds that they were not white, hauled them into court for marrying white persons, or claimed that the law prevented them from becoming naturalized citizens. Immigrant groups suffered severe discrimination, but being discriminated against did not make them non-white. The elevation of whiteness to an all-purpose explanation for political, social, and cultural behavior ignored the fact that the “white” category contains within itself many kinds of inequality. Not all white people share the same interests or class status. One can be white and still disempowered in the United States.

This point is implicit in Nell Irvin Painter’s book, The History of White People. Despite its formidable title, the book is a highly selective account of the evolution of racial thought. Indeed, the book slights the history of whiteness as a lived experience. More than a concept, whiteness is part of a system of allocating power and resources. One learns much from Painter about racial thinking but little about white supremacy as a historical phenomenon or present-day reality.

In twenty-eight brief chapters, Painter sweeps from the ancient world to the present, touching on philosophers, politicians, anthropologists, biologists, and artists who struggled to identify and categorize the races of mankind and rank them on a hierarchical scale of intelligence and beauty. The virtue of this approach is that it demonstrates how incoherent and self-contradictory thinking about race has always been. The drawback is that Painter’s criteria for selecting individual thinkers are anything but self-evident, and many of the short accounts inevitably superficial. Moreover, as Win-throp Jordan, the author of a pioneering history of ideas about race in early America, once remarked, to understand people’s attitudes about race you have to understand their attitudes about everything. To isolate thinking about race is to wrench it out of social and intellectual context, effectively (if unintentionally) reinforcing the validity of the very category Painter’s narrative seeks to undermine.

Unusually for a prominent academic, Painter recently resigned from a tenured position in Princeton’s History Department, exchanging Clio for a new muse: a Master of Fine Arts degree in painting. Her interest in art is seen in her analysis of the relationship between visual standards of beauty and “scientific” concepts of race. Johann Joachim Winckelmann, an eighteenth-century German scholar of the ancient world, declared Greek statuary the embodiment of perfect beauty, associating beauty and whiteness so strongly that later art historians resisted the discovery that many ancient statues and buildings had in fact been painted. Nineteenth-century artists such as Ingres painted Ottoman harems full of beautiful, naked white women. The slave was elevated to a symbol of beauty, so long as she was white.

Standards of beauty associated with white slavery, Painter notes, help to explain the origins of the racial category “Caucasian.” The name derives from the Caucasus, a region on the border of Europe and Asia where many captives of the Mediterranean slave trade originated, but that is not generally associated with the ancestry of most people we might deem to be white. Eighteenth-century naturalist Johann Friedrich Blu-menbach extended the defnition of “Caucasian” to include most Europeans and ranked them atop his classification of intelligence and beauty. The designation stuck even though, as Painter points out, it was entirely “mythical.” Into the twentieth century, mankind would commonly be divided into the Caucasian, Mongo lian, and Negroid races (with ongoing disputes over the designation of Laplanders, American Indians, and other groups who remained stubbornly unclassifable).

Painter begins with the ancient world to emphasize that people we consider white enslaved other people we consider white, an insight she struggles to extend to the United States. Consequently, her history bypasses the colonial era, when slavery became entrenched in Britain’s North American colonies and older dichotomies, such as barbarism vs. civilization and heathen vs. Christian, faded in signifcance, increasingly replaced by a stark identification of black with slave and white with free. By the seventeenth century, as one British writer noted, “these two words, Negro and Slave [have] by custom grown homogenous and convertible.”

This odd omission prevents Painter from explaining how racial categories came to be codifed in American law and social experience. Although whiteness was not yet defned with any precision, most colonists thought they knew what it meant. Benjamin Franklin suggested in 1751 that since the number of “purely white people” in the world was “very small,” America ought to exclude “all Blacks and Tawneys,” among whom he included not only residents of Africa and Asia but also the “swarthy” peoples of Europe—“the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians, and Swedes.” Franklin’s inclusion of Swedes among non-whites strikes us today as an original touch.

This notion of North America as the natural home of white people was refected in the Naturalization Act of 1790, one of the first laws passed after the ratifcation of the U. S. Constitution. In “Common Sense,” Tom Paine (misidentifed in Painter’s book as a Virginian, one of many small mistakes), called the new nation an “asylum” for all mankind. But the 1790 law limited citizenship for foreigners to “white” persons. Painter buries mention of the Act in a footnote related to late-nineteenth-century immigration policy. But it was a striking example of how, from the outset, the defnition of American nationhood contained a powerful and exclusionary racial component. After the Civil War, those of African descent were added to the list of persons eligible for naturalization. As the Ozowa and Thind cases of the 1920s showed, the exclusion of Asians lasted much longer.

Of course, as Painter points out, some black persons were not slaves and many whites were less than free, notably the thousands of indentured servants. Indentured servants, however, were not slaves. Their terms of unpaid labor were limited and their status was not heritable. Painter’s use of the category “unfree laborers” to conflate servants and slaves elides this crucial distinction. The first national census, of 1790, she notes, divided the American population into six categories: head of household, free white males over and under age 16, free white females, other free persons, and slaves. Since they were unfree, Painter argues, white indentured servants must not have been counted at all. In fact both the Constitution and the Census Act explicitly included “those bound to service for a term of years” in the “free” category. The point is, whatever may have been true in the ancient and medieval worlds, modern New World slavery rested on a racial distinction. No person legally designated as white was ever held as a slave in the United States.

Despite the enshrining of racial difference in national law, the thinking of the revolutionary generation remained suspended between environmental and genetic explanations for blacks’ alleged inferiority. In the nineteenth century, American notions of race became ever more “scientific,” as writers grounded racial difference in nature rather than history. (Of course, as John Stuart Mill once asked, “Was there ever any domination which did not appear natural to those who possessed it?”) The anthropologist Samuel G. Morton measured cranial capacities to classify and rank the races. Dr. Josiah Nott posited that God created blacks and whites at different times. Louis Agas siz, a prominent scientist who headed Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, embraced the idea of separate creation. Scientific racism, Painter shows, led its advocates to some strange conclusions. Morton determined that the skulls of ancient Egyptians were the same as those of the “modern white man.” He proposed that Egyptians depicted in paintings with African hair were actually wearing wigs. Nott insisted that as the product of sexual relations between separate species, mu-lattoes were infertile, an assertion daily contradicted in everyday life in the Old South, where Nott lived.

Painter devotes three full chapters to Ralph Waldo Emerson, far more attention than she gives to any other race theorist. She calls him the “philosopher king of American white race theory,” although exactly why remains unclear. (Emerson’s name does not even appear in the index of The Black Image in the White Mind, George M. Fredrickson’s classic study of nineteenth-century racial thought.) Painter points out that Emerson delivered popular lectures on the “Genius of the Anglo-Saxon Race” and argued in English Traits (not one of his more widely-read books) that racial “stock” determines national destiny and that American liberty derives from the nation’s “Saxon” origins. These ideas were hardly unique to Emerson. They were disseminated in the era’s magazines and newspapers and in the writings of Francis Parkman and George Bancroft, whose influential racialized narratives of American national development go unmentioned in Painter’s volume.

Painter seems to feel that scholars have given Emerson an undeserved reputation for broad-mindedness by emphasizing his musings in private journals about the emergence of a “new race” in America that would combine Europeans, Polynesians, and even “the Africans.” But as Peter S. Field pointed out in an excellent study of Emerson, English Traits represents only one facet of Emerson’s thought, not the entire corpus. Emerson’s utopianism distinguished him from the pessimistic sensibility of European race theorists, who feared the contamination of Western civilization by “inferior” races. More to the point, Emerson’s racial thinking was not frozen in place, as Painter seems to suggest. He came to believe that by fighting in the Union Army during the Civil War, blacks could disprove accusations of innate inferiority. During Reconstruction, Emerson endorsed the Radical Republican platform, which rested on equal civil and political rights for blacks.

Painter’s treatment of Emerson points indirectly to an absence in the book: the voices of those who challenged dominant views of race. She discusses briefy the black critics of racism David Walker and Hosea Easton, but ignores Frederick Douglass, perhaps the era’s most eloquent critic of racial inequality in American life. Indeed, the entire abolitionist movement gets short shrift, which is unfortunate, because abolitionists articulated an alternative vision of American nationality in which persons of all races enjoyed equality before the law and were protected by a benefcent national state.
Painter tends to equate the writings of theorists with the views of society at large. This leads her to neglect examples of whites surmounting racist thinking: how, for instance, abolitionists’ egalitarian nationalism was written into the Constitution during Reconstruction. (As George William Curtis, the editor of Harper’s Weekly, declared, a government “for white men” had been transformed into one “for mankind.”) The Civil Rights Act of 1866 made all persons born in the United States national citizens (overturning the prewar Dred Scott decision, which had limited citizenship to whites) and declared them entitled to the same legal rights “enjoyed by white citizens,” thereby transforming “whiteness” from a boundary of exclusion to a standard whose benefts were to be extended to all. In 1867, Congress gave black men in the South the vote.

Reconstruction established a precedent for legal equality that would be rediscovered in the twentieth century to form one pillar of the civil rights movement. Yet its failure was blamed on black incapacity, which bolstered the racialist thinking that would reemerge in America in the late nineteenth century. Such thinking helped to inspire a global sense of fraternity among “Anglo-Saxon” nations. Painter does not discuss James Bryce, the British writer whose widely read book The American Commonwealth convinced many whites throughout Europe and its colonies that the United States had made a terrible mistake in granting African Americans (whom he called “children of nature”) the right to vote; his work was frequently cited by the founders of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901 to justify their “white Australia” policy.

In the early twentieth century, a new racial measure came into vogue—intelligence quotient, a single number that supposedly measured an individual’s innate intellect and thereby made possible an aggregate ranking of different races’ innate aptitudes. The advent of IQ tests strongly affected popular views on race. When Robert and Helen Lynd conducted research in Muncie, Indiana, in the 1920s for their famous study Middletown, they found that 70 percent of high school students agreed with the statement “The white race is the best race on earth.”

The first serious challenges to racial theory emerged in the writings of the anthropologists Franz Boas, Margaret Mead, and Ruth Benedict, who demolished the pseudoscience of skull measurements (since these changed over time even within “racial” groups) and emphasized the role of environment and culture in shaping physical and mental capacities. Unfortunately, Painter’s account of these writers is too slight to explore how their attack on scientifc racism formed part of a larger challenge to prevailing ideas about gender, sexuality, and criminality—one that would repudiate biological theories of group difference and celebrate of cultural diversity.

Of course, anthropologists do not generally determine public policy. The decline of racial thinking had more to do with a revulsion toward Nazism and the effort of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration to emphasize group equality and cultural pluralism as qualities that set the United States apart from its foes in World War II. The war even led to the inclusion of Chinese in the ranks of those eligible for naturalized citizenship, although the annual quota of one hundred and five did not exactly invite large-scale immigration from Asia. The wartime celebration of racial equality, to be sure, had its limits. Jim Crow remained intact. The contradictions within wartime ideas about race were refected in the peculiarly named Caucasian Race-Equal Privileges resolution adopted by the Texas legislature in 1943, which stated that all Caucasians were entitled to equal access to public facilities. The resolution was meant to appease the government of Mexico, which had threatened to cut off the supply of migrant labor because of discrimination in Texas. (Mexicans were historically considered white in the state.) Clearly, “equal privileges” did not apply to African Americans.

Painter hurtles through the postwar years, in which “whiteness,” if rates of intermarriage are any indication, has been expanding to include Hispanics and Asians. Thanks to American society’s growing racial heterogeneity and the victories of the civil rights revolution, race has been discredited as a category of scientifc or political hierarchy. “Being white these days is not what it used to be,” Painter concludes. She fails, however, to discuss the resurgence during the past two decades of explicitly racist science—the work of Arthur R. Jensen, William Shockley, and Charles Murray, all of whom employ dubious metrics of IQ to argue for innate racial superiority and inferiority. Murray’s The Bell Curve was a national best seller in the 1990s. These writers offer an updated version of nineteenth-century Social Darwinism: Inequality in status rests on differences in capacity, and it would be disastrous to try to uplift those at the bottom of society or reduce the privileges of those at the top. Oddly, genetic inferiority is not necessary to reach this conclusion; the same argument could be made if differences in IQ were wholly determined by environment. But linking inequality to race makes it appear more “scientifc.”

We have not yet arrived at the postracial nirvana some heralded with Barack Obama’s election. Not when unemployment remains nearly twice as high among blacks as among whites, and when nonwhites are disproportionately represented among the victims of subprime-mortgage fraud and housing foreclosures. Fascination with racial ancestry, moreover, persists, as evidenced by the recent popularity of DNA testing. With motivations ranging from mere curiosity to psychological fulfllment, from affrmative-action to Indian casino profits, over half a million Americans have purchased “genetic ancestry tests.” Since each person on earth shares about 99 percent of the genetic material of every other person (and a considerable amount with
chimpanzees), and variations within putative races are greater than those between them, the results of these tests are not as defnitive as the precision of the data appears to suggest. On Faces of America, a DNA-themed genealogy program on public television, the actress Eva Longoria was declared to be 70 percent European,
27 percent Asian, and 3 percent African. This does not actually tell us much, as each of these continents is home to all sorts of diverse peoples. And the three categories, while seemingly geographic in nature, are eerily reminiscent of the old division of mankind into Caucasians, Mongoloids, and Negroids. Despite all the
changes of the past half-century, and despite Painter’s attempt to demolish—or transcend—the category, Americans still seem to find race a necessary convention.